"Isn't this movable home great?", I ask Mirjam. We are in Pirque, Chili. This place is home to the world renowned wine property of Concha y Tora (shell and bull - the last name of the founder). This morning at 11:00 we had a tour around the fields and the factory, and our taste buds have not been neglected. So Mirjam has taken a nap, and now we are ready ... "What's for lunch?" - "I don't know; but please not again those amounts of BBQ'd meat we had yesterday." "Actually, I don't want to go to a restaurant: let's not eat at all." "Yeah, let's just lie quietly in our little tent, get used to our new home..."
We have a new home: the world. The Chilean officer of customs asked: "Where are you?"; he had to enter my temporary address into his form. "I am with you right now", I answered. "Yes, but where do you sleep?" "I have no idea." He gaped at me. "Where are your belongings?" "In these two bags, the rest in the crate with the two bikes which you will release to me." Our world is very big, and at the same time very small.
Everything has been reduced to what fits on our bikes. Our home is a square tent 2.20 meter each side. The music (of the country we are right now) comes from a small speaker in our radio, instead of from the mega boxes in Belgium. We don't have TV, nor DVD. Our wardrobe has shrunk to about 20 pieces, socks included. What remains from my large, multi-color computer screen is a monochrome fit-in-handpalm. A year of not having my hair cut and gossiping at hairdresser Maurice in Trois-Ponts. The bathtub unreachable for a year. Of course our bed has stayed behind as well...
The bikes bring us to all places in this wide world. Tonight we stay in our tent, get used to the idea as well. For a year, our 'home' is alien: it will change daily. We just left, and already we've enjoyed a room with view on mountains, rivers and volcanos. We don't have that in Belgium. There we also can't decide this afternoon to move our home a few hundredths kilometers. It's different, it is reversed. It also takes getting used to.
For the last two days we've been riding the Panamericana: the road that plays such a prominent role in our journey. It is the through-road, along the Andes mountains, from the south of South America to the north: Alaska. Santiago de Chile feels very Western: there are shiny high-rises in the center, we queue up in traffic jams, we breathe smog, we ride through suburbs with beautiful homes, we avoid the familiar fast-food chains (McDonalds, Pizza Hut), and pass several huge shopping malls. We're on the highway. And already we are fed up with it. The last 500 kilometers flow through vineyards, past enormous billboards, and especially _past_ the beckoning snowy Andes mountains.
We decide to leave the road, for our first Andes encounter. We set our sights on the Antuco volcano, almost 3,000 meters high. It is a textbook volcano: a pointy mountain with a hole in the top. And covered in snow. The highway is soon forgotten when we stop for a drink. "Thank God!", I sigh. "For a moment I was afraid we'd crossed half the world to see nothing else but four-lane highways and hamburger shacks." We're in a pine forest, with eucalyptus fields and some meadows. We sniff the odors of the eucalyptus trees basking in the midday sun.
During the ride every now and then the volcano shows itself. We pass through a village, filled with those rickety homes built for a climate where there is no real cold. The mega stores of Santiage are replaced by a small shop in the living room of a house. The keeper lives in the back. Everything is smaller, more friendly, almost 'cozier', than in the Western-influenced big city. The road through the village is paved, the other roads are made of sand or gravel.
The volcano is located in a nature preserve, a parque nacional. We continue for 50 kilometers: the volcano looms bigger and bigger. Just as we get a really good look at it after leaving behind the last small village, the paved road ends. The gravel starts. Mirjam has to work hard to keep her bike on the path, but she is doing great. After 20 tough kilometers we stop at a waterfall. An arm of the Laja river rushes in a pool of ice-cold mountain water. We sip at the river water, and decide to continue the trip until we reach the lake that should be somewhere above us. Two turns later Mirjam falls over in the deepening gravel. Mirjam is OK, the dynamo casing of the bike has been torn open. Walking is difficult, riding even more. This terrain is more for the experienced bikers. The volcano is unmoved; for a moment I think it laughs at us. "There will be more volcanos after you!" We start looking for a place to sleep.
The best books and stories (in my opinion) are those where the author immediately submerges me. In 'Neuromancer' William Gibson talks about a complex society that only exists in his imagination, right from the bat. He doesn't give the reader any holds by comparisons with our real world. You just start reading, and Gibson talks. Of course you don't get all details - you are a stranger visiting an alien world. The film 'the Matrix' uses the same aspect.
Traveling is similar to me. The country I visit is the center. The society that hosts me continues to do its usual things, with or without me. When I don't understand something, then that's my problem. I love studying the stage that unfolds in front of my head light. Rootless and not understanding I view the society which I have joined temporarily.
In Europe we have campers. People sleeping in tents, right? In Chile there are lots op places labeled 'camping'. When you check if you can use it at the end of the afternoon, people apologize for charging the full day's rate. There is no warm water, and even by European standards prices are hefty. But gorgeous! We only had places along rivers, or next to mountain lakes. Places so beautiful it is a shame to close your eyes at night.
We decide to stay near the Antuco for one day. This will give me time to apply the liquid metal I brought from Belgium; I read that some BMW riders have an even more destructive style of riding than I have. They make holes in their engine blocks, a feat I haven't accomplished yet. Now the two jars of goo come in handy. The Kawasaki has a gaping hole in the dynamo casing, and the dusty roads will damage the stator if the hole is not plugged. The liquid metal (atually, it's epoxy with aluminum powder) seals the hole quickly and securely. And another day of camping along the shores of the fastflowing river, next to your very own fireplace and your private picknick bench is not exactly a punishment.
At 8:30 AM we hear a van and a pickup truck on the other side of the river. Chileans. A day out. The truck is filled with small white plastic bags; they are distributed over a few wooden picknick tables like ours. It's only 16 degrees Celsius, and we are not surprised to smell a fire, lying in our bed. At 9:00 the children start playing football, the mothers prepare a meal, the fathersw are talking. At 9:30 we decide the temperature is just adequate to vacate our bed. With a non-heated mountain-stream-cold-water shower to look forward to, we are in no hurry. The sun chases away the morning fog, and it gets warmer and warmer. The Chileans start grilling meat. And prepare more food. And a short nap during siesta. And roast more beef. That's enjoying life! And us? We're Europeans. We think about sleeping in a tent when we hear the word 'camping'. Losers!
And yet... We are all alone on the campings during the night. Quiet! Tranquility! After a day of bike and wind noise that's a relief. Using the Chilean 'wrong way around' is not so bad...
I like sunlight. For years I 'needed' to visit a sunny site once a year, often using the excuse that I hadn't swam in tropical water for a very long time. I had gotten used to this anually 'light therapy', and took the high temperatures for granted. I don't like the heat very much. In the end I get used to it, but I sleep irregularly, and I don't feel pleasant when I strain myself, for instance while loading a Bonairian truck with scuba gear for an afternoon dive.
Chile has the perfect climate (for me). The Western winds bring freezing air from the Pacific Ocean to the mainland. The nights are cold after sunset. Casablanca (in Morrocco) and Islamabad (in Pakistan) are 33 degrees north of the equator - it's hot there, very hot, during summer. Santiago is also 33 degrees from the equator: the sun is strong here. During the day the cold sea air is quickly warmed up to more than 30 degrees around noon. That is siesta time here - sleeping and eating time. In the morning and late afternoon temperatures are very pleasant. Unless it's cloudy, then you definitely need a sweater.
In the lake area (about 750 kilometers south) it's not that warm during daytime. And it rains regularly, which keeps the scenery nice and green. There are a lot of German immigrants - the climate resembles 'ours'. When the clouds cover the sun it's chilly, even in the middle of summer. When the sun shines it gets warm without getting tropical. My still pale skin only takes half an hour to burn. When it rains the spells are very heavy, with thunderstorms. In the winter the temperatures occasionally dip below zero, but during the day it always tops 10 degrees Celsius. In the summer the nights are chilly (10 degrees), but it gets 30 degrees at noon. It's California squared - my favourite climate.
"When it's winter here, we're gone! To the summer!", I've often said during preparations for this trip. Everybody knows seasons are reversed on the southern hemisphere. I too know that, but whether I really realise that... In Australia, on a previous journey, I crossed a hot desert in May, and felt the Australian winter in June and July. But that was after 14 months of warmth and sunlight. My biological clock said it was time for winter as well.
Now we left the European summer and ... again it's summer. The grass in the fields is green and speckeled with colorful flowers. The yellow roadside flora, mixed with purple lupines make almost a festive arrangement. It's near the end of spring - hay fever time. (And yes, I have a runny nose.) The reversal is complete: the cows have calves, lambs frollick in the fields, and the occasional young pig thinks it's big enough to scour the side of the road alone. The tree tops are full of leaves, and everything looks fresh.
Tourist centers awake from hybernation - hotelrooms are vented, buildings get a quick lick of paint, the last renovations are speedily executed - tourist season is near. And about seasons: soccer season is in full swing. That is clear by the long "Goaooooooooooooooool!" coming out of the radios on a Sunday afternoon.
Most of my life I hqave spent on the Northern hemisphere. When the sun is behind you, you head north. When you continue heading north, it gets colder. And the days lengthen. All understandable, but my navigational instincts have trouble coping. I feel the sun is moving in the wrong direction. Still the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But here the sun travels through the north. When I ride with the sun in my back, I head south. I even manage to mix up east and west. And my left-right sense is crap as well...
All South American countries have been colonies of Spain or Portugal. OK, England, Holland and France also had their place. In all cases, they were Christian countries. As usual that led to mass reforming and genocide. Furhtermore, the Dutch and Portugese were experienced slave traders, selling their stolen 'goods' to god fearing plantation owners. In short, South America is mainly Catholic. Summer or no summer - Christmas will be there. We even have seen a Christmas tree with lights next to a holiday-celebrating Argentinean campers tent.
Patagonia... Oh, how much has been said and written about you! The wind, the plains, the endlessness and the roads leading to you. Patagonia, oh how overrated you are! You are a cold desolate place, lying in the rain shadow of the Andes. Of course, you are inaccessible and you have your own beauty. Your roads are a challenge, your climate, especially the wind force, are an inspiration. But unfortunately you are not pure anymore.
But, like more strange men, I feel attracted to these kinds of places. And when I get to ride straight through such a place, either over gravel or asphalt, the choice is simple. A 600 kilometer long gravel path as part of the thousands of kilometers of Ruta 40 ("routa kwarenta") is like a magnet to me. It's the most western route, closest to the Andes. It is also the least busy, and the road with the best experience of the country side. Untouched Patagonia, that's my goal.
All day we ride (over asphalt) to reach Rio Mayo. We are in luck: because we travel south-east, we have the west-north-west wind mostly in our backs. The landscape is vast and wide. There is almost nothing here, and that gives this place its own purity. After we turn south we learn we need about a meter's width of the road: the crosswinds make us sway like drunks. During the last 50 kilometers nature shows who's boss: we head straight into the wind. It's hard work, and we are glad we reach the tiny village over unpaved roads. Rio Mayo has a population of 500 souls, and this makes it a large settlement. There is a gas station, two supermarkets, a hotel, and even a kind of city hall, which is closed. You can camp next to the city hall, which doubles as museum and tourist information office. There are no other campers by the BBQ place in the dust. But the local stray dogs are all present.
I try the hotel. Zero stars. The lady owner has escaped straight from the set of "Married with Children" - she's no actress, she _is_ the wife of Al Bundy. I myself like dark-haired ladies. This species was dark, but had changed color using some cheap product. Her hair is combed forwards, like Peggy Bundy. Her nose and the lines around her mouth are even uglier. She demands 30 pesos for the room; we can also have dinner. A charming, dark-haired Argentinean 'petite' shows the way to the room without windows. The hotel is plain dirty - I can only hope we don't contract any creepy diseases - but it's the only thing in town.
And that is my problem with this area: we foreigners seem to look like ATM machines. Tonight we entered alien territory, and we will remember this! The reception is not heartily, the first thing they ask is the value of our bikes. I think the price of the meal depends on the answer to that. The more expensive the bike, the more expensive the piece of beef. I try to haggle, but the witch knows her position. I pay what she asks, and that's final.
The next morning we hit the road again, now over gravel. We encounter about four cars per hour, most of them are faster than us and travel in the same direction. 'Everybody' apparently heads south, now that the holiday season has started. I think there are three main southern destinations: 1. 'Los Glaciares', where the glacier Perito Moreno enters the Lago Argentina, straight from the Andes; 2. 'Parque Nacional Torres del Paine', a nature preserve famous for its turquoise lakes with ice and rare flora and fauna; 3. The end of the world: Fireland. Ushuaia is the southern-most inhabited place on earth.
The Patagonians live in a beautiful country. There is ample space and air. And wind. Actually, that's all there is. The vegetation is very desert-like. We see small, sphere-shaped plants with yellow flowers and many thorns, and some plants with greasy, thick leaves. There is no grass, no trees whatsoever, except on the banks of the few rivers we cross. The ground is sandy, mixed with round gravel. The landscape is mainly flat. We are between 600 and 900 meters above sealevel, just behind the snowy peaks of the Andes we occasionally see. We ride over a gravel road that is fairly accessible, but it has deep tracks of loose gravel in some places.
Mirjam has to work hard to keep her bike on the road. Fortunately the wind is less strong than yesterday - she is doing fine. The first 100 kilometers from Rio Mayo to the small village of Perito Moreno is done in 3 hours. The village is reachable via an asphalt road from the Atlantic Ocean. That road is east-west, and we want to go south. After lunch the wind increases, and on top of that the road gets worse. Lots of deep tracks, some washboards here and there: ribs in the surface which let everything on the bike shake violently, and make the bike hard to handle.
Mirjam gets the hang of riding over gravel: many things go well, but she still has problems with the apparently contradictionary tasks. When you get on a road with a loose topping, such as gravel, sand or mud, your front wheel tends to slide away. A natural reaction is to get off the gas, so you slow down. That unfortunately will surely get the front whell to slide away, because the center of gravity of the bike shifts forward. The solution is counter-intuitive: increase speed. And that is still difficult for Mirjam.
Suddenly I see a sign: Estancia y Hosteria, English and Dutch spoken, 40 kilometers. "Dutch?", I think. Perhaps a small break is not such a bad idea. The farm (estancia) has a driveway of only 3.5 kilometers, and is next to an enormous flat plain between the hills, with a small river. That even gets the grass growing. It seems like an oasis. The farm is made u of a few buildings, completely surrounded with trees. I start to miss the trees - I live in the Ardennes. The hosteria part is simple: a wall around a grass field for shielded camping, and a building with one big room where you can escape the wind altogether. Keeping yourself (and your farm) out of the wind is a necessity here.
We are greeted by the electro-technical engineer Coco Nauta. Of Dutch heritage, born in Argentina. Coco speaks Dutch, but it is obviously a foreign language to him. He has company: neighbor Anthony (immigrant from Scotland) and family are seated with the family of Coco around a big, rotating table, made from a cart wheel. We speak English instead of Dutch. We are in a kind of barn, with glass slide doors on the east side. There is a kitchen block and an open fireplace, with a second fireplace in the wall at working level. That one is probably used to grill meat. We get coffee, the others keep drinking wine.
We start a conversation. "The wind is not so bad today - yesterday was horrible!", the wife of Coco says. Yes, we have experienced that. They ask me why we dropped by here. "I wondered why someone from Holland would go to a farm without electricity on a windy Patagonian plain." Coco tells us he worked for Philips in Argentina, until the parents of his wife vacated this property. Coco and his wife started herding cattle. "How big is this farm?" "About 600 square kilometers, about 20 by 30 kilometer."
Then Anthony and Coco explain how their businesses operate. Anthony has 400 square kilometers, and both men are involved in extensive livestock farming. That's very different from what is done in Europe - you just let the cattle graze on the fields. The farmer takes care of the barbed wire and water. I quickly calculate that a simple fence of seven wires would require 700 kilometers of wire. In some cases farmers are the same all over the world: they immediately start complaining. Cattle thieves, the volcano eruption of 10 years ago, the cold winters preventing the cattle from drinking the frozen water, the prices of transportation, the low wool prices, the European farming subsidizing, and the devaluation of the Argentinean Peso.
The numbers are overwhelming. During an average season these men lose about 10% of their stock on account of thieves, starvation or lack of water. After the eruption the dust and sand made the teeth of the sheep wear down to the point that they couldn't eat at all. Of the 12,000 pieces of cattle only 4,000 survived. They prefer to sell wool: that's easier to transport than cattle or meat.
"How did you get our address?", Coco asks. "I saw your sign, that's it", I reply. "Do you want to camp here?" - I get the impression we are recognized as ATM machines again. It is still early, and we have only covered 125 of the 600 kilometers. We probably would need 3 days, if we reach Bajo Caracol this evening, just past the 200 kilometer mark. "We are also mentioned in the Lonely Planet travel guide", Coco adds. That does it, we are out of here.
After our visit Mirjam is very tired. She rides extremely slowly, and starts making all the beginners errors again. She almost falls over a couple of times. And the wind seems to have increased in strength. We decide to head for the next estancia; it should provide a place to sleep. This farm is 7 kilometers off the road, and has a terrible driveway. When the owner finally shows up, it is obvious by his slightly too expensive outdoor trousers that here we would shine as ATM machines as well. We aren't allowed to camp, but have to stay in a kind of youth hotel. They have dinner as well. The prices are steep for these simple, but complete meals (or so they promise us). We have little choice: Mirjam can't continue.
Sparse population and desolation has its charmes. Because of the bad condition of the roads you have to travel slowly, and you get dependent on the help of the locals. And these people know that very well. Everyone who is dependent on tourists has to do so in two or three months. The rest of the year Patagonia is deserted. And bikes are definitely out of the question then.
During dinner I complain about the completeness of the meal. There isn't even water, vegetables are missing as well. Another group of travelers have a starter, wine, bread, the works. They explain us they have brought that with them; they are enjoying the same meal as we do. I add I then think the price is outrageous.
During the night, in my own sleeping bag on a less than fresh bed, I contemplate our situation. The further we travel here, the more we depend on the wide-spaced places where we can get gas, food, and shelter. If things get worse, due to the weather or because Mirjam gets tired, we risk not reaching the next 'support point', or, if we press on, injury to Mirjam. All depends on Mirjam and her riding skills. She hasn't slept well this night. Suddenly, the asphalt road 65 kilometers back, from Perito Moreno to the coast, doesn't look that bad. We still have about 600 kilometers to go before we reach 'Los Glaciares'; using the asphalt road this distance would be doubled. But the chances of accidents seem much smaller to me.
"Do you want to continue on the kwarenta, or shall we head for the asphalt?", I ask Mirjam as we are ready for another morning's ride. The wind is strong, and it is cold - 8 degrees Celsius. "We continue!", she says bravely. "OK, but if we do 600 kilometers more, you don't have to ride over gravel anymore. We have to ride back, but then you can use proper pavement to reach the glacier." Mirjam mulls this over, and responds: "Yes, but you wanted to ride the kwarenta. Not anymore?" Sure, I still want to, but not if this means risking injury to Mirjam. Besides, we have seen more than 25% of it. "I think it will be better to turn back now", I decide. In the evening we reach the coast.