Thursday, 20 December 2012

Patagonia - Absolute D E S O L U T I O N, masochism and plagues of Dragonflies

Latest technique to keep warm, wedge my hood under the helmet. 
This here's Oiiil Country, not much else going on
Ok I have to admit it, the weather down here is just unreal and a small 200cc plastic bike loaded to the max is not designed for Patagonia.  Its too light so you get blown all over the road, there’s nothing to stop the headwinds in your face, it has no power whatsoever, and the fuel tank is too small.  Its unsuited for so many reasons but I’m still going somehow.  The last few days have been simply tough and draining.  If you were to compare the journey with a day of the week, it would be a Monday.  A Monday afternoon at work, where you have just had your lunch and are falling asleep at the desk with hours still to go until the end of the day.  In summary I just want to reach Ushuaia now.

Its also getting noticeably colder too and I am having to add a layer of clothing for every few 100kms….Hoping that I don’t run out of clothes before I get to Ushuaia.  I’ve not even mentioned the rain, which works in partnership with the wind.  I’ve discovered that wind plus rain renders all waterproofs useless after 4 hours of a full onslaught, and with me averaging 12hrs on the road every day you can imagine the kind of state I am in.  So after describing all this would it make me sound like a complete masochist if I said I am loving Patagonia, not the cold, but the sheer challenge of this trip.  I still can’t believe I am still going.
Finally a bed in the road on Ruta 3
Santa Julian beach, sunscreen not necessary

Possibly the most exciting place to be in Santa Julian

My corregated iron guesthouse
Santa Julian is where the Argentine airforce was based during the Faulklands
I have had some low points though, the worst being the ride from Rada Tilly to Puerto San Julián.  I will never believe weather forecasts again, or the road sign distances between towns or petrol stations, which are always inaccurate.  It felt like I never reached anywhere all day.  It was truly awful with no shelter and so much relentless wind and rain I couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of me the whole time, so I was riding blind.  Whenever a truck passed I was covered in a sheet of water, and had to crouch like a surfer riding through a tunnel.  After 4 hours I was soaked through and beyond 6 hours I was so cold and wet that I couldn’t feel my hands and could hardly remove my waterlogged (supposed all weather) gloves.  Putting them back on required 15 minutes of painful manoeuvering so after doing this twice I decided to not bother checking my hands again for risk of not getting the gloves back on.  When I finally reached Puerto San Julián the wind was so bad that I couldn’t leave the bike without either me or the bike blowing over so after passing a guesthouse with a sheltered carpark I decided for the 1st time on this whole trip to take a room.  I thought cleverly I could try to dry my clothes for the next morning only to find the heaters didn’t work….anyway moving on…

Puerto San Julián - such a strange place.  If early reports on Patagonia are said to have inspired Shakespeare to write “The Tempest” or Swift to write “Gullivers Travels”, then its not too unbelievable to think Puerto San Julián inspired “The Wicker Man”.  The atmosphere is bizarre, I took a walk along the shoreline path with deserted playgrounds, a replica galleon and a jet plane weirdly mounted on a pole.  I could just sense the people in the houses staring at me.  In the meantime teenagers in rusty, bonnet-less, patched up cars drove back and forth several times taking turns to actually try to run me over.  Weird eerie place, I couldn't imagine spending a whole winter here, but this is what Magellen, Drake and Darwin did on their voyages.  Unlike them I had a bike so not surprisingly I left Puerto San Julián very early the next morning. 

I’ve noticed that there are more and more motorbike travellers on Ruta 3 down here.  Unbeknown to me being new to this biking life, reaching Ushuaia is a popular thing for bikers at Christmas and places to stay enroute can book out, so I thought I would change tactics and leave early to get a head start. Unfortunately because of my ridiculously slow bike I spent the day being overtaken by every bike in South America so I guess that tactic is pointless. 

Loving the break in the storms

Between Puerto San Julián and Rio Gallegos I pulled into a petrol station at the same time as 2 groups of Brazilian and German bikers all on KLR650s and BMW650s and 1200s.   After I filled up I decided to ride over with my 200cc and join them too.  I am, afterall a proper motorbike traveller taking on Patagonia now.  Unfortunately as I pulled up to park amongst them one of my foot pegs fell off.  They gave me a split second glance before actually taking their time to walk around me to continue to introduce theirselves and take pictures of each others bikes.  To add insult to injury I had to borrow a tool to fix the peg back on hahaha.  Oh well.  I rode on only to be overtaken by every single bike 5 minutes later.  

Strange things continued.  I rode though 2 different plagues of dragonflies, which pelted me and my helmet (what the hell are dragon flies doing out here?) and have seen every possible kind of dead animal littering the empty landscape, dogs, cats, armadillos, skunk and even the huge guanacos pinned to barbed wire fences.  Putting all this behind me I finally reached Rio Gallegos on the 19th which is where I am holed up in a nice hostel.  I'm waiting until the winds die down a bit so that I can catch a ferry across the straights of Magallan and onto Tierra del Fuego.  Finally I’m getting nearer to the end of the world.

Ushuaia, somewhere in that direction?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Puerto Madryn, Pingüinos, and Welshless Welsh Patagonia

Katia, on the way to Punta Ninfas

Amazing, I made it to Puerto Madryn and more importantly I’ve made it to Patagonia, pretty happy about that.  Although on my first night in the hostel I realised all my belongings are starting to get into a sorry state.  Looking at everything dumped in the corner I realised it had been a fair while since I was last in a hostel.  Everything is dirty and stained and has even developed a certain “smell”, a vast contrast to all the other backpackers in the hostel in their nice fluorescent Northface gortex that makes a swishing noise as they walk around.  Gortex is a good idea down here though as the last couple of days have been pretty grim all the time and I know its only going to get more challenging as I go south.  The town feels as though it is on the edge of wilderness and looking at the map it seems like its going to get quite bleak from here on in, haha going to be interesting.

Puerto Madryn is right next to Peninsula Valdes, a World Heritage Site, which is famous for the ridiculous amounts of sealife that is found all around here.  This includes whales, penguins, seals, sea lions, dolphins as well as Orca.  I’ve seen most of these animals in various parts of the world, but never Orca and the ones here are particularly special.  It is the only place in the world where they have learnt to beach theirselves to catch the young seals that relax on the shoreline before dragging them back into the sea, poor little buggers!  This only happens during the breeding season in January and even then it is rarely seen.  So no Orca for me this time.  Because of this I decided to skip paying for entrance to the peninsula and instead go to a couple of lesser known places where you can get actually get down on the beach and walk amongst the animals.  The advantage of having your own bike.  

One of these was Punta Ninfas, a remote outcrop some 80kms of ripio away from Puerto Madryn.  Its here that you can climb down the cliff and get really close to Elephant seals.  While getting ready for this day drip I chatted to Katia, a girl from France who was staying in the hostel and as I didn’t need much equipment, we worked out there was room for her to come along on the bike too.  It made a nice change from all the solo riding I have been doing.  The trip out was dusty at times and I had to concentrate to avoid the deeper gravel, but was on the whole fine.  What we did have trouble with was finding a way down the cliff once we arrived.  It’s a sheer drop and there are no obvious ways down so we rode back and forth right along the cliff edge until we found a way.   Glad my brakes are still going strong.  

Cliffhanger, not nearly as bad as it looks.

Finally finding a gap we made the steep climb down, made more difficult as I was carrying my helmet and bike gear.  But once down we had the beach to ourselves, sharing it only with the Elephant seals.  These looked huge from the cliff edge so actually coming within a couple of metres to them and seeing exactly how big they are was definitely better than any tour we could have paid for on the peninsula.  They are massive, and so fat they can hardly drag theirselves around.  We spent the afternoon walking around taking photos as close as we dared to go and then took an increasingly cold ride back in the strong winds.  
One big lump of blubber

The next morning after some debate due to the weather closing in, I decided to continue on south.  Ignoring the darkening clouds, I set off and hoped for the best, so being hit by a wall of wind and rain 5 minutes later was not the most welcome thing.  I was aiming for Punta Tumba, the largest penguin colony in the world outside Antartica.  To reach it I would have to ride a small section of ripio, so with the conditions as they were it would make it a little more fun.  However, I have to say I was flagging in the motivation department so after only 50kms and realising I’d packed my waterproof gloves away I decided to call it a ridiculously short day and stay in Gaiman.  

This area is the heart of Welsh Patagonia, where decendants from 19th century Wales still live in their traditional way.  I thought it would be great experience to hang out with a load of Welsh people who still wear their traditional clothes and drink ales and cream teas and hear about the old country.  I remember seeing pictures in a National Geographic when I was 8 and at the time being confused by the fact that there can be people so far away from Wales who are infinitely more Welsh than the people still living in the country, so after setting up the tent I had a bit of a walk around.  Unfortunately I became my confused 8 year old self again as I didn’t see one person looking remotely Welsh…nothing….today can’t have been the designated tourist day?  I did see some tea houses though, but these were closed too.  Anyway some houses did remind me of villages back in the UK, but honestly the whole place felt pretty uninspiring.  No worries you have to go to these places to find out right.  The tourist info office did have wifi so I sheltered in there from the weather and researched my trip to Ushuaia.  No people visited all afternoon, which says something.  

A house in exciting Gaiman, which does admittedly look a bit like my Grans house
Welsh Patagonia, where exciting ingredients can be made into exciting meals.

The next morning I rode on out hoping to see something welsh - a choir singing, a daffodil, anything, but still there was nothing so I kept going the 130kms to Punta Tombo.  Testing myself on the ripio I made it easy enough in the early afternoon.  After parking the bike behind the guides caravan to protect it from the wind, I went down to the shore to see all the Magellan penguins.  There are paths laid out all over the place and you have to stick to them as right now it is breeding season so there almost a million penguins hanging out all over the place and they have complete right of way over everyone.  

I'm no expert but Magdellan Penguins seem to either stand up sunbathing like this...

sunbathe lying down...
sleep with their eyes open...
take communial toilet breaks...
spend hours looking for their nests...
or if you're a single male with nothing else to do, hangout in big groups.
Everything else is completely outnumbered.  Here is lonely Guanaco out of place.
After spending an hour or two tripping over penguins I had to keep going if I was to find a decent place to shelter.  There is only one road south – Ruta 3, so I kept my head down and kept going through my first real desolate part of Patagonia until I reached Comodoro Rivadavia some 400kms later.  Comodoro is essentially one big, rich, oil refinery disguised as a town, and not very scenic so as the sun went down I went on the last few kms to Rada Tilly, a moderately nicer town and found a decent municipal campsite to sleep in for the night.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The journey to Patagonia continues - (The not so) Bahia Blanca

The Bread Basket of Argentina
Leaving Laguna Alsina after the unscheduled stop, the sheer vastness of this agricultural area became even more obvious.  The whole way was simply field after field of crops.  It took over the whole horizon.  The flatness also meant the wind was quite strong.  But nothing my newly invincible bike cant handle and by mid afternoon I arrived in Bahia Blanca.  I can't really say much about this place as I spent the next 3 days pretty much lying down in my hostel as I was hit with a severe case of exhaustion, or in other words laziness.  I was knackered from the last few days exploits so other than rediscovering the joys of workable wifi and servicing the bike I didn’t really do too much.  I can say with authority though that Bahia Blanca's bahia is not white at all, and more resembles a muddy brown colour.
The Romanesque straight Ruta 251
By the 14th I was completely recharged so I continued on south, deciding on going inland which I hoped was a more direct route.   This meant taking Ruta’s 22, 154 and 251.  To say there is not too much out here is an understatement, it was dry, dusty and with the wind and processions of lorries a little difficult in places.  The roads were long, straight and not the most inspiring and if I hadn't had the amount of rest from the previous three days I'm sure I would have fallen asleep at the handlebars.  The sheer amount of crops being grown though is impressive, this easily has to be the bread basket of Argentina.  It;s everywhere as far as you can see, with each field the size of a whole farm back in England. 

Another tiny Fiat, so wanna get me one of these
Snack stop, hiding from the sand and wind
Riding like a man possessed I reached San Antonio close to the coast.  This is where I am joining Ruta Nacional 3, 400kms into its 3079km length.  It stretches from Buenos Aires to Bahía Lapataia in Tierra del Fuego, which is actually 25kms past Ushuaia.  I planned to camp near San Antonio, but after running into two of the most miserable Swiss bikers at the petrol station outside of town, I decided to keep going and away from their dark moods.  It was only 4pm, sunny and I felt pretty awake so I decided to carry on to see how far I could go.  This amazingly turned out to be all the way to Puerto Madryn, a full on record breaking 670kms.  To think when I started this trip I used to wince at the thought of 300km and cry if I didn’t know where I was going to set up camp beforehand.  These days I don’t care if I sleep in a ditch.  Luckily though Puerto Madryn has many hostels so instead I treated myself to a real bed.  
Outskirts of windswept Puerto Madryn
670kms later I was greeted with a rousing fanfare and hundreds of beachgoers