"Mate?", I ask, "what is that?" They offer me a leather-coated cup with a pipe sticking out. Mate is Argentina's national drink, or so it seems. When we are invited somewhere, people offer us some. The cup is made of a calabash, sometimes made of wood, often coated with leather or metal. At the end of the pipe is a sieve, resting on the bottom of the cup. Most of the time the pipe, called bombilla, is decorated - the better ones are made of silver with details of gold.
The butchers who cut the meat wear mouth protectors, the bread is cut by people wearing operation-style gloves. Sometimes it seems Argentineans have a fear of infections. I have seen others in our company sucking the pipe, and so I join in. In this context drinking mate is rather strange: the pipe goes from mouth to mouth. No fuss about hygene, they all use the same bombilla. It almost looks like sharing a hash cigarette.
The mate cup is for 75% filled with tea leaves (the yerba). They pour luke-warm water over it, and drink ik almost immediately. Then they pour more water over it, without renewing the (huge amounts of) tea leaves. The taste is strong at first, but only gradually weakens during the liter of water that passes through the mate. The tea tastes like herbes, the leaves are dried, but not like the tea we know and drink in Europe. This tea is green and mixed with herbes - even in that respect it resembles hash. It is an 'acquired taste', the Argentineans are visibly pleased when we bravely join in. I really don't like the ordinary tea they have here, so now I lug along half a kilo (!) of yerba, and drink mate like these people.
Our white Christmas is off. We are on the southern hemisphere in the summer - the temperatures reach 24 degrees Celsius in the afternoon, when you stay out of the wind. And that wind is strong, like it should be in Patagonia. We are in San Julian - a tiny village at the Atlantic coast. We planned the white for Christmas to be the Perito Moreno glacier, but that is still a full day's travel away. We celebrate Christmas in our home, which is our tent near the beach of the harbor. The wind is raging, but we don't care. We have finished our dinner, Mirjam has arranged some Christmas decorations, and has produced a Christmas gift for me. Yes! I get a real treat - my favourite candy.
"Listen!", Mirjam whispers, when we wake up on Christmas morning. "It is quiet!" And indeed - the Patagonian wind has taken a day off. For bikers this is just as good news as a white Christmas, and we pack up in record time. We ride south at a stiff pace, and even start dreaming about seeing the glacier today after all.
We have little storage space, and we have cut down on almost everything. We can't afford having a big stack of road maps. We only use two small-scale maps for the whole of South America (1:4,000,000), just to save space. But this might have been too rigorous. Our map doesn't show any difference between paved roads and loose gravel. For us, especially for Mirjam, that difference is huge.
Just south of Piedra Buena a road marked on our map as a main through route is made of gravel. It is indeed an important road, but we would like to have known that it is gravel. We decided to make a detour of 600 km to avoid the gravel on the kwarenta, and now we are at the beginning of yet another stretch of gravel. The road we have chosen is another 410 km long. Some time ago we checked a detailed map from an Argentinean truck driver, and we memorized the paved roads. If we want to avoid the gravel it will be 700 km. But we aren't sure we remember correctly. On these plains, with an inaccurate map, 'sureness' is a rare commodity.
The map shows another way to reach El Calafate (the village near the glacier), but it tells us this is a secondary road. From experience we know this one is definitely gravel. That road will be 325 km - shorter than our first option!
We ride to the exit south of the river Rio Santa Cruz. We put the bikes on their stands, and in 15 minutes we put on almost all of our clothes from our cases. It is cold, although the wind is still calm. All traffic, except for a Rotel (what's that? - keep reading), passes the exit, and stays on the asphalt. Almost everyone waves or honks at the two lonely bikers on the Patagonean plains. We decide to go for it. Mirjam feels OK, and even for her 400 km over asphalt is a bit too much (that is, if we recall the trucker's map correctly).
Santa keeps giving presents: the road is not that bad, and the wind is almost absent. In the first 6 km I have spotted more wildlife than in the last 600 km asphalt. Grey foxes, nandoes (a species of ostrich) with young chicks, running hares and guanacos (a kind of deer with a lama-like long neck). It is a great trip - the best piece of ripio in Patagonia, I think. But it can't be a party all the time. At about two-thirds, when we're getting into the outskirts of the Andes, the road gets worse. The gravel consists of slippery river pebbles. But again Santa comes to the rescue: the last 80 km asphalt is his present, alas with some rain...
[On www.choam.com the unsurpassed Vanderhorn IT-Works carries a copy of our map, with our route drawn on it. If you (patiently) download the very large version, you can tell by the colors of the line the speed that we traveled, and thus where we stopped, turned or slowed down (when conquering gravel) as well.]
We thoroughly enjoy El Calafate. This afternoon we bought a piece of Patagonean lamb and a bag of cole. Tonight we're going to use the grill next to our tent like real Argentineans. But first I want to check out something, I hear a motorbike approaching.
There are two Africa-twins, an XT600, an R1100GS and ... an Opel Astra. The owner of the GS complains about his bike; almost everything "ist kaputt", and now he has discovered the bike has loose ball bearings in the cardan suspension. A man with long hair and ... wooden shoes approaches me. His roots are clear. Ronald drives with Arjen in the rented Astra. They have joined Jeroen (XT600) and the Germans. They all started somewhere else, the story gets complicated. Sam (the GS guy) leaves, he wants to take apart the rear suspension. Others wander off in search for beer. Typical world travelers - a tight bunch of people, loosely connected. Some travel together for months.
First we go to Torres del Paine, and then quickly to Ushuaia, to celebrate the New Year", Ronald tells me. "We leave early tomorrow morning." Torres del Paine in Chile, on the other side of the Andes, is also on our wishlist. A nature preserve with sharp peaks and valleys, with micro climates and interresting flora and fauna. But tomorrow morning we first want to see the glacier. On one bike, the road to the glacier is covered with rock debris. Soon we say goodbye to the group.
The glacier is huge. The pieces that fall off form small icebergs in the water of Lago Argentino. The breaking of the ice resembles thunder. We keep looking at the gigantic ice mass for a few more hours, despite the rain and cold wind.
The next day we leave for Chile as well. Again the weather is beautiful, and it almost looks like Mirjam doesn't notice the difference between regular pavement and gravel. In her enthusiasm she misses the Chile customs checkpoint. A couple of (European) tourists in a big rented 4WD chase her down. Almost all the way to the nature preserve the road is made of gravel, including the part we thought would be asphalt, about 200 km in all. But finally we face the three peaks that give the park its name. They are basking in the setting sun.
Familiar faces: the car-and-bikes group, they used this lovely day to climb the peaks. They are exactly one day ahead of us: being original this hike is on our schedule for tomorrow.
We wake up under a cloudy sky. The peaks are invisible - not a good time to make a hike. It looks like our schedule is one day behind the weather! We chat with other Europeans around us, while we hope for a break in the cloud cover. Climbing in the fog is useless. And to be honest, we have enough of the cold. We contemplate lots of options. Returning by ferry - that sounds tempting. There is a ferry service from Puerto Natales (a few hours ride) all the way to Puerto Montt. No gravel, no winds and a ship cabin to keep us warm. Besides, we can check out the fjords on the Chilean (the other side) of the Andes. No desolateness, no drought, more nature.
We live in absolute freedom. We do exactly what we feel like, and make elaborate plans which are ruthlessly canceled a mere 5 minutes later, when another thought strikes us. Around noon we have made up our minds: we will go to Tierro del Fuego. At the end of the world, at the end of the year ... again not that original, but it has a strange kind of attractiveness. We calculate it will take two long days to reach Ushuaia, on 30 december. For a moment the peaks reveal themselves, just as we start our bikes at 1 PM. Too late...
"Hi Lance!". I greet the slightly balding New Zealander. The man looks surprised, and studies my face and the bike. "Adrian!", he calls out. He realises I have lost a moustache and gained a few kilos of body weight. "How is this possible!", he tells the people around him. "The last time I saw him was on the Karakoram in Pakistan, and now here!" I didn't even know he was traveling again, much less that he would be here. An amazing coincidence, or is that normal for stray cats ?
We have reached Ushuaia, the most southern city of the world. The city is much larger than I expected. I was afraid all the travelers would swamp a small, sleepy village. But no, 'we' are not a factor at all on the streets. Ushuaia is visibly wealthier than the rest of Patagonia. There is a navy base, an oil refinery, and quite a number of factories. It has all facilities a normal city should have: spacious, well-stocked supermarkets, small and elegant boutiques along the boulevard, all possible telecom facilities, even traffic lights... What it lacks: various taxes, thanks to the Argentinean government, who wants to develop the economy of Tierra del Fuego.
We have swamped a beautiful campsite at the river Rio Pipo - no less than 20 bikers from all over the world have gathered here, without any previous coordination. And with that many similar people a New Year's party is quickly organized. Lance and I do the shopping (on an empty stomach) in the largest supermarket we can find. Sheep is sold in quantities of half a lamb. We are a little late - they are fresh out of those. "It's almost for free", we wonder, looking at the product prices. The meat is incredibly cheap: a kilo, cut from a hare while you wait, is about three dollar. We return, carrying two kilos of meat to feed three persons.
At 8 PM we use the excellent infrastructure to wish our families all the best for the New Year. My sister and father are not at home - it runs in the family, I guess.
During the party Alex, a demolition expert from Australia, fits a stick of dynamite Sam has smuggled from Bolivia with an ignition, also smuggled. The others from the group we met in El Calafate carry another three sticks; they will set them off in other parts of the city. 2003 started with a gigantic explosion!
New Year's morning, 9 AM. We start to wake up slowly, wondering if that last glass of champagne is the cause of our slowliness. Children are playing, the first fires are lit, and the halved lambs are back. Now they are crucified on metal racks, and are hung next to the fires for hours. The sun is shining brightly, and the wind is almost gone. It is rather chilly, and we stay in our tent, until Lance arrives. We fix an electrical problem with his bike, and chat all day about our lifes since 1998, when we last saw each other.
Around 2 PM the temperatures have climbed to 19 degrees Celsius in the sun. In the shadows it is barely 15 degrees. But the children of Tierra del Fuego think it is summer: they put on their swimsuits and enter the freezing river! We feel a bit overdressed in our fleece sweaters and windtight jackets.
The Rotel arrives again. It has missed the party, but it has reached the right spot. The passengers of "Das Rollende Hotel - Rotel" think these huddled-up individual world travelers are interesting. And we are amazed by the mice cage they dare to call hotel. This Rotel has two compartments: a truck, converted into a kind of super 4WD van, towing a trailer with lots of tiny windows in three layers. It has the air of a luxury cattle wagon. And we are right: each window is a bed. Every night 34 tamed Germans enter this cage. Stacked three layers thick, and barely enough space for a 2 meter tall person. All free-roaming world travelers shudder by the mere thought. Personally the sheer size of the group gives me the creeps.
The passengers do their best to convince us: "We are not as young as you are, and this way we still make the same trip." The oldest of the lot is 80 years, the younger ones are 40, like us. "We don't have to pay for a hotel room, we bring that with us." OK, but they have to visit campsites, there are no bathrooms aboard. And I know a few things about camp sanitary. "It is much cheaper" - wrong! When I deduct 1,000 dollar for the flight from Europe to Chile, and the return flight from Ushuaia, they still pay 100 dollar a day. Lance (with a Bachelor's degree) and I quickly calculate someone is making a lot of money here...
"I didn't like it at all, that Ushuaia", Henny says. "End of the world, huh! - Just a windy, cold city", he keeps on whining. We are in Puerto Madryn, in a small motel, around midnight. We sit on the ground next to our bikes, drinking beer with a couple of Dutch people. This night, Mirjam has gotten up from her sickbed; we heard there was a Chinese restaurant in town, and we thought we could eat some white rice there. When she is sick, white rice agrees with her the best.
We rode for four days; after New Year's day the temperatures went down earlier than we fancied. A mountain road slippery of rain, stiff side winds, a punctured tire, and a delayed ferry were the first day's hurdles. The second day brought more rain and wind, thankfully the third day it warmed up a bit. The fourth day we had to change a tire; it was worn down to the steel threads. Mirjam was glad she had reached Puerto Madryn (and so was I). Because of the strains and the big differences in climate she immediately succumbed to the flu.
It's absolutely high season here. The campsite, filled exclusively with Argentineans, was nice, but not a place to sit out a flu. After two tries we find a place in the crowded city. Almost all other rooms are occupied by members of the Baobab travel company, and Henny talks away. "Untouched Patagonia - I saw barbed wire everywhere!" - Henny keeps complaining. "How did you reach Ushuaia?", I ask. "By air plane", he answers. "Ah, I understand why you think it is not the end of the world. The distances, the border crossings, the wind, the gravel, these things make Ushuaia the end of the world. And then, what did you expect? Ever since that bloke with binoculars had an argument with the Pope, you could have known there is no real end of the world!"
Henny is stubborn. "I think this is the worst trip ever. We did an outing this afternoon to see the sea lions. Finally something nice, but now after barely one hour they dragged us back. Group terrorism!" I ask the rest of the group if this man is always this negative. They mumble something resembling consent. 23 days they have been huddled up with him, and they seem to have decided not to argue with him (too much). After all, they pay 100 dollar a day. I know our room is 10 dollar, someone is making money again.
"Why are you so negative?" I ask Henny. "I am just cynical", he answers. "And what do you do for a living?", he asks in return. I decide to keep my answer neutral. "Oh, some consultancy." "Ah, one of those! You work for Twijnstra and Knudde?", he responds immediately. Henny turns out to work for the government. He is a group leader, and once he had to endure a management training to learn how to improve the motivation in his team. The consultant apparently started off with information about positive and negative energy, Karma, and stuff. Henny has rejected the training, he prefers his cynical approach. He 'has to do' another 10 years until his early retirement. Henny is a bittered man, dragging everybody around him down in his negativism.
His wife laughs uncomfortably when I try to counteract: "Why do you travel with a group like this? If you had bought a plane ticket and rented a car, you had experienced Patagonia like we did. You would have reached Ushuaia equally tired, and you would have been able to enjoy the sea lions and Penguins all day! Sucker!" Henny doesn't have to think long. "Yes, but when something goes wrong, this way the tour guide has to solve it - then it is not my problem."
I will never, ever, travel in a group. Imagine it has one of those Henny's in it.