‘Heavy and Slow in Patagonia’ Part 1.
In November 2016 I undertook an unsupported bike trip along Chile’s remarkable 775 mile gravel highway the Careterra Austral along with my wife Caroline and disabled friends Karen Darke and Jaco VanGass. Here is part one of six of our journey.
1.Puerto Montt - Chaiten
We reached Puerto Montt after three flights and what seemed like an endless day of travel. We had little problems with our excess baggage which should have cost a fortune - however it’s clear that travelling with a wheel chair user, a guy with a missing arm and me clearly has an effect on people. Maybe the staff took pity on our situation, after all we all forget we are disabled. We arrived in Puerto Montt in perfect warm spring sunshine, almost too warm really. We had no idea that it could be so hot at this time of year - we all had packed clothing for the predicted cool spring temperatures, not the high twenties that we arrived to. Our first hurdle was transporting all the equipment from the airport to the hotel, but the local people were extremely friendly and helped out as best as they could. A people carrier loaded to the roof with bike boxes and bags found its way to our hotel where the staff were more than happy for us to take over a corner of the underground car park to build bikes and trailers. There we found our second hurdle: the trailer Karen had brought, an old B.O.B, didn’t fit Jaco’s 29er wheel size. After a day of hunting for a solution around this interesting city, we found a motor bike garage willing to help and do some last minute arc welding to make the trailer fit. After an hour with lots of pointing and hand signals, the trailer was complete, but it will be interesting to see if it last the trip, as the welding looks, well let’s say interesting!
Jaco and I load the trailers with the kit which seemed to keep coming. With Karen riding a hand bike, it’s impossible for her to carry the vast majority of her own equipment, so Jaco and I have agreed to be the donkeys for this trip. With loaded bikes and trailers, we roll out of the hotel. After a year’s planning, it’s great to be on the road at last. We have so much stuff it’s crazy, and I’m not sure we are going to make it out of Puerto Montt’s maze of one-way streets, let alone all 1247kms of the Carreterra Austral. However, once out of the town, we make our way south along the coast and through a large section of dusty single lane road works. The drivers are extremely patient with us as we crawl along at a snail’s pace - I think my bike must weight 60 kilograms with Karen’s wheel chair perched on top of my loaded trailer. It’s painfully slow as we only average 10 kilometres an hour, but progress is progress. Now the time doesn’t matter, no power outputs, no heart rate monitors, just riding for enjoyment.
The tarmac sees us make good time even in the scorching sunshine. I feel my skin burning through the sunscreen as the southern hemisphere sun is harsh even with factor 50. We pass a small house as we climb yet another back-breaking rise, and a local man in his garden asks us if we want cold water. The waving, shouting figure disappears into his house and returns with three ice cold bottles. He tells us that what we are doing is inspiring, and later in the journey, we even had a women stop her car on a climb and film us in tears saying how she was so moved by what we are doing she had to stop and film the moment. The locals here love it, it’s unbelievable. Several people tell us we must be on a journey with God to inspire the people we meet, but to us this is an adventure, it’s life, just what we love doing.
Our first day finishes camping in the garden of a lovely Chilean man - as we are finding out, this is a very common custom here in southern Chile. The evening light is amazing, but the mosquitoes are something else as Caroline is chewed to pieces. They don’t seem to bother me too much which secretly I’m very pleased about. We have a great first night camping under what seems like a million stars in the clear skies, and awake to another amazing day. Surely this weather can’t last, but we all hope it does, as Patagonia is famous for relentless rain and high winds. We hit the gravel roads earlier than expected with a savage gradient which sees the team start pushing Karen’s bike up the hills - a regular pattern moving forwards. I only make it up the loose rocky winding climb due to my fatbike’s traction, however I need to stop to help Karen as she has trouble finding purchase on her hand bike on anything but the easiest gradient. Progress slows again, but we work well as a team and push on. After the second day of riding on the dry loose gravel, we’re all blackened by the dust sticking to the layers of sun screen we have applied to fight off the sun which sits high in the clear blue skies for most of the day. Its rays seems to be at their most intense around three pm. On the longer steeper hills, we have to relay-push Karen as she can’t seem to find the traction she needs. Jaco rides off ahead to get to the top then begins walking back down to meet myself pushing Karen through the middle section after taking over from Caroline who starts at the base of the hill. As we leap frog each other most of the day, it’s rare we ride hilly sections together.
As we pass through the wilderness heading south on the Carretera, it starts to feel like we are in Patagonia. We have caught three ferries across amazing bluey-green waters, and now we continue our journey on the gravel. Tall trees line the road with mountainous landscapes just behind, making it a breathtaking place to journey through. We cross rivers that are so clear that it’s only the troubled white water that give away there is any water at all, and it tastes so good to drink as we fill our bottles directly from the cool streams. The roads are a mixed bag, but they have all been ridable so far. As we continue the journey south from Chaiten, a town destroyed by a huge volcano in 2008, they will only degrade as we head further into the remote empty space Patagonia is well known for. I’m sitting in a wooden shed in the back of a local’s garden where we have camped for the night. I’ve found a socket so I’m busy charging all of the camera equipment as I have no idea when we will next find power. I lost my solar panel and charger off the back of my bike a while ago, shaken loose and gone for good on the rough wash boarded roads on day two!
I wash out of a bowl of warm water at night due to a lack of showers, although the few we have come across run so cold they feel they would burn you. I quickly wash and get changed so not to get too cold - it feels like a treat to put on clean clothes in the evenings after spending day after day cycling in the same kit. I have only three sets of clothes to last the three and a half week trip so I wash them where I can, but it’s only every 5 days or so. I haven’t turned my phone on since leaving Puerto Montt, and only open my laptop to download the video footage I take each day from the cameras. I’m dirty and exhausted after dragging overloaded trailers up what seem like relentless gravel Yorkshire hills. Steep, punchy and really draining, and I have to say this is what I love. If I’m struggling, I’m learning. Easy holds no value for me.
Thanks to sponsors of the trip Dirty Dog Eyewear and Berghaus Clothing.