Monday, January 26, 2009

The magical mystery tour - Chiloè

The bikes only just made it to the island of Chiloè. After putting them onto the ferry first, the following 4000 cars, vans and trucks each took it in turn knocking them all over and scraping them up and down the wall. At least they now look well used.

Obviously after a tiring 6 hour ferry ride we were hungry. Ordering the local speciality "curanto" had to be done. A giant bowl filled with pork, chicken, sausages, salmon, potatoes, clams and mussels the size of your hand arrived and was finally finished after a couple of hours. Yummy!

Quellon, the first town was not that great. A bit shabby, with dusty streets and strange smells everywhere. We soon left and cycled to Chonchi which is apparently an old pirates enclave. We soon learned that people in Chiloè don't speak like other Chileans. We found it extremely hard to understand anybody and could only think that their language derived from some sort of secret pirate language years ago. The local people also seemed a lot shorter than anywhere else we´d been so far, we reckoned this was also a pirate thing as they may have let there wooden peg legs wear down too far.

While in Chonchi we managed to find a beach side hotel in which we had the honeymoon suite. Almost perfect, just no TV - oh how we miss little normal things!

All our theories seemed to be very possible when we encountered our first parrots flying around trees on the road to Castro. We arrived here and spent 15 minutes looking around the plaza before deciding to move on - in a bus - off the island to Puerto Montt.

We had cycled to three towns on the island and were quite dissappointed with the place. The people were creepily strange and the funny smells didn't go away. Ian had several showers here so it couldn't have been him.

We decided it would be best to get off the island and spend time in more enjoyable places than wasting time cycling in a place we don't like.

After Chiloè we will be entering the Chilean Lakes district which will be very beautiful - many volcanoes and lakes.

This also meant we could get Gemma to a hospital to get her squidgy knee looked at. After being pushed around on a wheelchair for an hour she made it out with both legs still attached and Ian made it out without being taken away by the police for questioning.

X-rays showed that her knee is perfectly fine and she just needs to eat lots of chocolate to make it better, apparently.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cycling into a volcanic evacuation zone...

The couple of days recovery for Gemmas knees was alright. Coihaique, as with other towns along the Careterra Austral, wasn´t up to much. Although it did have 2 giant supermarkets which were frequently visited. We cooked more with big fires. Only because the wood was full of insects and it was better to see them burn than run around in your tent at night.

We bought ourselves ferry tickets from Chaiten to Quellon on the island of Chiloe. These ferries don´t come often following the volcanic eruption and so we did not have time to ride the whole way there. Along with Tim and Kylie (our Aussie stalkers), we managed to find a bus driver crazy enough to have a go at strapping four bikes to his roof, and then negotiate 200km of road works through terrible ripio and bad weather. We also nearly managed to get a place for Stinky - a dog which kind of followed us around town for a couple of days.

The driver dropped us off at Villa Santa Lucia which was a small collection of houses at the junction with the road for Futaleufu - the road most people seem to be taking as it heads back into Argentina and avoids going through Chaiten.

A couple of days cycling later we had entered the outskirts of Parque Pumalin and found ourselves camping at the hotsprings near Amarillo. Around here we found ash all over the floor, all over the roads, all over abandoned houses and cars and there was quite a lot of damage.
We decided to spend 2 nights at the hotsprings as it meant we could stay nice and warm and clean, and more importantly it meant we only had to spend one night in Chaiten.

After leaving our details with the local police we cycled the 30km into Chaiten very quickly. The excitement was great and also it was mainly downhill the whole way.

As soon as we started to enter the town, the devastation of the eruption was clear. Houses were nearly buried, cars were almost completely covered in ash, the southern part of town across the river had all but been destroyed and the place was eerily quiet. A town of 8000 people was deserted except for a few, maybe 100, who decided to stay and continue as normally as possible. A couple of shops remain open and a few hostels also remain. Most other buildings were emptied and left. To top things off, the volcano was still pumping out a load of ash and dust, thankfully being blown in the opposite direction. Although tempted, we thought it might not be appreciated if we ran our fingers across the shelves in the supermarket and tutted.

It was fascinating to see and we are very fortunate to have seen a volcano being so active. At the same time it was sad to see the devastation caused by it and to see people try to continue as if everything was still normal. And people think we´re crazy!

After spending enough time coughing up dust balls and fighting giant horseflies we caught our ferry to Chiloe. That was the end of the Careterra Austral for us. It had been difficult cycling, bad road conditions and steep hills. Hopefully the experience will help us further north. At the very least we know that the bikes can be attached to almost any vehicle with a little rope and they can make it unscathed with a massive amount of luck.

Our next stage is the island of Chiloe and the Lakes district. It promises to be much better in terms of road conditions, frequency of towns, access to shops etc. But the mountains are starting to get bigger as we slowly enter the main Andes and therefore the passes are longer and higher.
We´re not sure if anything can quite top seeing the volcano but things always seem to happen when we´re around...

love to all xxx

Monday, January 12, 2009

Gravel traps, boulders, dust clouds and washboard - bruising a plenty.

Four days in one small town (Cochrane) was a bit long for us both. We were starting to turn purple and red with our diet of fruit and berries only. In an effort to turn ouselves back to a slowly cooked-human brown colour we took to the road. Within just 2 kms we had been covered in the dust kicked up by a few trucks and so our colour was back. Ahhh.

Cyclists heading the other way had warned us of the road and of a hill just out of Cochrane. We decided to limit ourselves to 50km days. Following the beautifully coloured Rio Baker we arrived in Puerto Bertrand after many more than one hill. This quick stopover place was small but the surrounding area was just perfect. Lots of good camping, loads of good clean, freezing cold water and beautiful mountains all around.

Almost to tempt us into staying longer, Gemma´s chain had a small mishap on the way out of town. A link had broken and was causing problems with the gears. Two hours later the bike was up and running again. We hoped to still make the 50km into Rio Tranquilo that day. Just 20km later we had come across a road sign saying Rio Tranquilo was still 51km away. No problem though, we were very close to a beautiful campsite on the shore of Lago General Carrera where we spent the afternoon munching biscuits, rowing boats, killing flies and having Western style stand-offs with small herds of bulls.

An early start the next day was rewarded with nearly 15km of wonderful compacted road surface. Our bikes were happy and our faces were stretched back with the much-missed speed. This road took us around the shore of the great lake which gave us some amazing views too.

We sill can´t figure out why this particular stretch of road is so good compared to the rest we had encountered on the Careterra Austral. It was over all too soon. The bikes slowed down and our bodies were once again being shaken to bits by the rocks and washboard. X-rays of cyclists round here would probably show powdered vertabrae and mushed up hands and feet.

Gemma´s bike had obviously had enough of all this. While going down a hill the front wheel found a gravel trap and threw Gemma over the handlebars onto the rocks and dust. The truck coming the other way was very luckily still far enough away to give Ian a chance to rush back shift everything off the side of the road in time. Trucks don´t slow down for anything and this one didn´t prove any different.

With bruises on knees, hips, elbows and shoulders, Gemma bravely rode into Rio Tranquilo and headed straight for the empanada shop. Yummy.

Luckily there were no broken limbs but lots of swelling and soreness. An attempt to ride out the next day ended quickly when we discovered the chain we had fixed had broken again. Back in Rio Tranquilo we bought bus tickets to Coihaique to let Gemma rest her beaten body for a few days. The bruises continue to get bigger and darker and the same purpley red colour we were beginning to develop in Cochrane is returning nicely.

It´s not all rest and relaxation here though. We must find a way of getting ourselves and the bikes to the island of Chiloe without being too caught up in the aftermath of Volcano Chaiten. Recent reports of it still smoking and forming new craters are quite exciting. Not the kind of thing to be near if it goes off again though - and with our recent luck it most likely will.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Carettera Austral - Villa O´Higgins to Cochrane

Following hot showers, good sleep in beds and lots of relaxing with books and tea, we set off for the beginning of our time on the Carettera Austral. We had been told of the lack of wind, which seemed to be true. We had been told of the amazing scenery along the way, which appeared to be true. And we had been told of the lack of any real road, just gravel tracks, which was also true.

Our first day went well despite some rain and hail. We managed a whopping 50kms before retiring to our roadside woodcutters hut for the night. Fortunately the woodcutter wasn´t around so we had a nice spot next to river under a mountain with a huge glacier hanging off the side. Rather nice.

The next day was New Years Eve. No time for partying just yet though, we had another ferry to catch. The road slowly became more rubbly and nobbly and we were faced with our first big pass on this route. Some pushing was involved due to a lack of chocolate and biscuits. Luckily once over the pass and down the other side, the ferry took us to Puerto Yungay. This port was barely 5 buildings big.

One wonderful lady had managed to stuff her little hut full of chocolate, bread, cakes, nuts, sweets, more chocolate and coke. After spending all our remaining cash in her hut we headed off down the beach to start our big New Year party.

Obviously after cycling hard all day we were rather tired. We decided it would be better to celebrate New Year on English time which was 9pm for us. Full of sugar and bread we were snoring and dreaming by 9.06pm.

Our sleep was disturbed all too soon when the ferry staff decided to find us just before midnight. After much shouting they left us briefly. Just enough time to set up a firework display right outside the tent which was nice of them.

With sugar come-downs we woke up and headed for Cochrane. The road again worsened. Some parts looked as though they had just planted mines in the floor, detanated them and then declared it a road. Cyclists who travel here find bruises in places they really shouldn´t be bruised and may never have children.

The scenery along here was absolutely fantastic. Mountains, lakes, waterfalls, tracks through forests, a great feeling of isolation, skunks and hoards of horseflies.

We arrived in Cochrane expecting neon lights, skyscrapers and people. Just cold beer and steak would have been good enough. We managed to arrive just after closing time though. The bank had shut, the shops had shut, the restaurants were shut and the ATM did not accept Visa. Due to the weekend this left us waiting until Monday to be able to change any money. An English couple came to the rescue and changed some US$ for us, enabling us to buy enough food for the weekend. Our hungry tummies were also pleased to find a cherry tree, a raspberry bush, a redcurrant bush and a beer tree next to our tent in the campsite. Yummy.

The weekend is now over, we have once again got Chilean cash and a pannier full of food (chocolate and biscuits). Tomorrow we leave Cochrane and make our way over some hills on reportedly horrendous roads towards Coihaique. This could take us a week so we will be in touch when we get there.

Lots of love, Ian and Gemma.

Ooh.. massive thankyou to all the family who sent us emails from Naomi´s Christmas bash - thanks for the photos - but where are this years head measurements?

An unusual border crossing.

We had heard about this border crossing from other crazy cyclist nutters back in Newcastle (Richard and Sarah). The route makes its way through 27km of nowhere to a lake (Lago del Desierto). This is crossed by ferry.
Nutters are then subjected to 7km of mud, up a big steep hill where the track isn´t wide enough for the bikes and the panniers. It´s worth a try though isn´t it?
After this you are faced with 15km of downhill rubble track cut into a mountain side with some other obstacles like fallen trees, broken bridges and sand.
After you´ve had your passport stamped in the middle of nowhere you have to cross a second huge lake (Lago O´Higgins) by ferry to reach Chile and the windless paradise of the Carettera Austral. This ferry only goes twice a week, if the driver feels up to it.

We had just two days to make it to the second ferry, otherwise we may be stuck in the middle of nowhere for another 4 days. Our boxing day start didn´t go too well...
We woke up to horrendous wind and rain. Just getting out of Chalten was a struggle involving a quick stop-off in the bread shop for cakes. Mmmm.
The road was terrible too - gravel and loose rocks or boulders. After just 10km, Gemmas rear tyre had gone flat. A friendly Dutch couple were cycling by as we were fixing this in the cold, wind and rain. They were very keen to find out where we were going, where we were from, how far we had cycled etc... Not one for small talk at the best of times, Ian was beginning to fume under his raincoat hood.
Luckily Gemma managed to deal with the guys and a few minutes later we were back under way.
Progress was slowed by the wind which refused to die down completely and when just 5km from the ferry port, Gemmas rear tyre was flat again! With no time to repair the flat, we cycled on, risking damage to the wheel but limped to the ferry just in time to board it safely.

That night we camped by the side of Lago del Desierto and following a tyre change, a tube change and an all round check, Gem´s bike was back to being roadworthy. It´s just a shame that we won´t be riding on good roads for the forseeable future.

The next day we were to tackle the mud and rubble to the next ferry. It was fantastic luck that we arrived the evening before to be met by Ricardo. Ricardo lives in a hut between the two lakes during the summer and helps nutter cyclists by carrying their panniers over the pass with his horses. Obviously we couldn´t refuse such an offer.

Even without the panniers the mud tracks, the fallen trees, the lack of bridges, the swamps, the random dis-used air strips and the scary sheer drops down the mountain side were tough going. Despite all this we did make it to the next ferry without any problems. The ferry however, well, that didn´t show up. We camped by Lago O´Higgins following promises from the border guards that the ferry will arrive the next day.

The ferry did turn up in the morning and our 2.5 hour crossing to Villa O´Higgins began. Two hours later we were parked up next to an island watching several guys abandon the ferry on a dinghy. The boat captain told us we had to wait 4 hours for them to round up sheep. At least we were assured that this was the scenic boat.

Four hours later the shephards returned to the ferry with a couple of dinghy´s full off sheep. We then headed off to Villa O´Higgins and arrived 10 hours after leaving in the morning. Very scenic.

Once in Villa O´Higgins we treat ourselves to a hostel with showers and beds.

Christmas - we made it to El Chalten!

Firstly, merry Christmas to everyone back home. We hope everybody has a great time without us, but we will understand if you are all miserable and missing us.
We managed to make it to El Chalten. We were rather fortunate for a couple of days of little wind, encouragement from random Dutch people in cars handing out empanadas and coke and random cake shops.

We were however always worried about the turnoff for El Chalten. This turnoff leads to a 90km stretch straight into some of the fiercest winds imaginable.

We certainly weren´t let down.

Just turning the corner was difficult enough and following 500m of wobbling, 3km of pushing and half an hour of road side sitting, we were treated to the familiar "two buses at once" we so commonly get back home.

Bus 1 just waved back and the driver laughed as he scorched past. Bus 2 however was being driven a more sympathetic ´Juan´. This bus took us and the bikes the remaining 86km in just over an hour - saving us a possible 3 days of torture and a quick end to the marriage.

Chalten was fantastic. The camp site was just under the beautiful mountains around Fitz Roy and more importantly there was a great empanada and bread shop nearby.

We met up with old friends once again - Derek from Scotland, Tim and Kylie from Sydney and Kristoff from Germany.

For Christmas day we enjoyed a beautiful BBQ which involved giant steaks, huge sausages, all manner of roast veg and a mushroom cloud probably visible from space. Mine and Tims eyebrows are still growing back. The day also involved beer and axes which is much better than watching the Queens Speech.

We must thank Santa for making special efforts to get the reindeer down the road to Chalten - it must have been tough - they did a fantastic job and helped deliver some great goodies. Christmas isn´t really Christmas unless you get chocolate coins.

During our few days in El Chalten we walked into the mountains a couple of times but the clouds were rather low and so we didn´t see the whole range. The views were still magnificent.

Our Crimbo rest was soon over and following a slow (hungover) start to boxing day, we managed to make our way out to the border crossing to Villa O´Higgins. We have been promised that on the other side (the Carettera Austral) the winds are much less severe. It will be more hilly and possibly rainy but it must be better than the wind.